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GOCRITIC! Animest 2022

GoCritic! Review: Inu-Oh


- Oana Darie takes a look at the latest feature by cult Japanese filmmaker Masaaki Yuasa, whose work enjoyed a retrospective at Animest

GoCritic! Review: Inu-Oh
Inu-Oh by Masaaki Yuasa

Cult Japanese filmmaker Masaaki Yuasa was the Guest Animator celebrated at Animest in Bucharest this year, meeting the public at screenings and holding a masterclass during the first weekend. His retrospective included a special screening of his latest feature Inu-Oh, a musical period piece which has earned the filmmaker much international acclaim over the past year.

Inu-Oh is set in the 14th century, with a dense narrative that both informs and engages the viewer vis-à-vis the Japanese artistic and political scene at that time. The film's principal strength lies in the fact that, whether you’re in step with Japanese history or culture or not, you will enjoy this anime rock-opera, because its stylistic approach and story will smoothly transport you to a relatable realm which will engage and excite your senses.

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In a sequence of events belonging to the realm of the mythical, a hideous baby boy is born to a famous Noh theatre family, but he is shunned, hidden from the world, raised with the dogs, and marginalised to the point of not even being given a name to go by. Yuasa ingeniously shows us the world as the boy perceives it, through a gourd mask with eyes carved to fit his deformed face. Who could love and befriend such an unsightly creature and what can he grow up to become? When he meets Tomona, a blind biwa singer in Kyoto, the two characters set out on a path to musical self-discovery, during which their joint destiny is revealed through their radically innovative artistic expression.

This peculiar boy is Inu-Oh, a name he chooses for himself when he meets Tomona, the only person who can’t be repelled by Inu-Oh’s deformities on account of his own visual impairment. Together, they form the most avant-garde stage duo of their time, as they learn that music, theatre and dancing based on ancient spirit stories will allow the restless souls of the long departed to rest and will help Inu-Oh to heal from his disfigurement. Their performances mirror many rock stars’ signature poses, beats and movements, for we learn that Yuasa himself is a great admirer of Queen, Iggy Pop and Jimi Hendrix.

The film is spectacularly rich and works as a time machine through which our arguably simplistic assumptions about life in the past are silenced, leaving us in utter awe of the striking similarities between our times and Yuasa’s rendering of the 14th century. There’s talent, disability, evil, power struggles, and there’s censorship over which stories can be told, which our heroes must grapple with. We travel through time and space as the director takes us from one century to the next, and from one location to another in order to depict a landscape which remains unchanged, save for architecture, vehicles and fashion. Yuasa seems to be arguing that, just like the land, the sea and the sky, people’s lives don’t change over long periods of time. He adds a further layer to his film, in the form of the charming, exhilarating and, at times, hilarious co-existence of the seen and the unseen – the latter being the spirit world, which only the blind have access to, a world which would mortify the living if they knew that it existed.

With Tomona’s spirit acting as the vehicle of this journey, Yuasa offers the audience access to the mythical. A blind narrator opens up all kinds of possibilities for visual representation in this anime, and the character’s other, more developed senses are subsequently utilised in the film’s narration. Sounds within the movie depict a pulsating outer world with stylized, poetic sharpness, taking any fear, anger or despair out of the equation and leaving us with a calming white canvas where all that can be heard by the character is shown in vibrant strokes of red; he is the one who can see the restless spirit world, and thanks to him, we can too. And it's the forgotten stories of these spirits which give our protagonists their uncompromising creativity - Tomona and Inu-Oh are the only vessels through which the forgotten tales of those who are no longer living, can be told.

The argument that restoration of historical memory is an important artistic mission further deepens our admiration of the film and grabs the audience’s attention. Portraying characters who tell the tales of those who can no longer speak for themselves, whose truths have been censored and buried over time, the film seems to act as if a Proustian novel, in which Yuasa seems to be saying, by way of his anime rock opera: Inu-Oh, c'est moi.

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